From his insanely popular podcast to his critically acclaimed roles on shows like GLOW and Reservation Dogs, Marc Maron has steadily worked his way into mainstream consciousness over the last 15 years. But his roots remain firmly planted in his stand up work, thanks to his unflinchingly self-deprecating wit and unique Jewish American perspective. Here, Maron talks about playing Comedy Works in Denver, talking to Robin Williams, and how scary a time it is now for Jews the world over.
FD: So, tell me a little bit about how this tour came together and what makes it unique and different from the last tour you took.
MM: I just did that special [that] dropped on HBO (“From Bleak to Dark”). I recorded that special last November, and I just kept plugging away, so now I’m just building the hour for the next big tour. So, when I do club dates, it’s really to sort of just pound away at new stuff… I’m working on about an hour to an hour and a half of new stuff. So this is really ultimately the best way to see it in a way, because club comedy is really where it’s at… the best place to see a comedian is in a comedy club, so these are going to be special shows for that reason. There are some comedy nerds, and some of my fans who like to see the process. It’s not like I’m trying shit out that might not be funny. I just believe that you get the reps in, and also I write on stage generally, so there’s room for improvising, so new things can happen and that’s how I create this stuff. So that’s going on in Denver.
FD: Denver has become a much more friendly comedy town over the last 15, 20 years where Comedy Works has a really good reputation nationally. There’s a lot of great comics out here, and I think that when really established national names and really talented comedians like yourself come through, it helps add to that credibility — just having you do a set there, as well as the inspiration for local comedians working their way up.
MM: Well, you’ve always had pretty good guys coming out of Colorado for years and the Comedy Works downtown has been around for years and from almost all comedians’ point of view, one of the best clubs in the country. I was surprised that my agent booked me at this other one. I’ve never been to the other one. I’ve only done the ‘Works downtown, so I have no idea what I’m walking into, but I imagine that my fans are going to be there, but everybody has nothing but great things to say about that club. It’s almost too good.
FD: “Too good,” meaning the green room’s actually comfortable or clean or …?
MM: No, no, it’s just the nature of the structure of the room. Clubs are clubs, but every club has its own personality and that one’s sort of subterranean ceilings are low. It’s like almost cramped. It’s tiered and it’s just the ability to get into an intimate situation with the audience, just there’s no distance between you and the crowd and the loop of laughs to come back at you. It’s overwhelming. I talk to some guys and I’m sort like, yeah, sometimes the audiences are so good at the Comedy Works downtown that you don’t really know if the joke is good or not.
FD: Gotcha. Yeah, it’s almost like a loaded situation where you’re going to get a laugh no matter what, and you’re like, well, am I doing good stuff now or not? They’re too nice!
MM: Yeah, well, I mean obviously jokes are jokes and some are better than others, but it’s just a very satisfying room to play because it is really what I would say most of us or me in general believes that comedy clubs should be in my life. Generally, subterranean comedy clubs are pretty great. The Comedy Cellar in New York, the old comedy underground in Seattle, the original one was in a basement. There was a club in Boston called Play it Again Sam’s that was in a basement. Because what happens is with those low ceilings, it’s just the best because it just makes the sound in the laugh so much better and everybody can feel it. But there was a period there where there were quite a few kind of basement comedy clubs, but even when you get into above ground comedy clubs, low ceilings are preferable and certainly a kind of tight environment. There’s a new club out there in Vegas, the Wise Guys in the arts districts, another one, low ceilings man, it’s all about those ceilings, but I’m just being a nerd about performing spaces, but all to the point that seeing comics work out in the comedy club is where it’s at.
FD: You’ve had incredible runaway success with your WTF with Marc Maron podcast — with guests as famous as President Obama — and it’s fascinating to me how well it took off. What would you attribute that to?
MM: Yeah, I don’t really know. My style of conversation with people has evolved over time and it was a sort of a conflation, is that the word I want, of events that really made that thing sort of work. When I started that thing, there weren’t that many podcasts. I started that podcast really out of desperation. I had done some radio and my career, I wouldn’t say it was in the toilet, but I wasn’t really a guy who could sell tickets. I’d just gone through a divorce, and I was pretty broke, and my prospects for club work were looking down the barrel at being a relatively unknown headliner going out on the road, and it was bleak to me. So because I had radio chops and I had a producer, we started that thing in New York after we got fired from Air America, and we knew it was coming and they didn’t throw us out of the building. So we hijacked the studios after hours and we started doing that podcast, and once I moved to LA , I just started talking to peers in the comedy community. I kind of frame it that the first hundred episodes is really just me inviting celebrities and comics over to talk about my problems…The reason why it’s remained sort of steady and successful is because I really am all-in with those things and I put a lot of thought into how I’m going to engage someone in conversation. Then the entertainment press started picking up bits and pieces of our interviews because none of them really have the wherewithal or the funding or the incentive to do their own work. And we were providing amazing content for Vulture and for other entertainment outlets. There were a few pivotal interviews early on that really changed the game and inspired other people to do podcasts. I would say probably that Robin Williams was very important and that one was kind of a game changer, and that was probably pretty far into the thing. The New York Times wrote a big piece on me in 2011. So the podcast as a medium and as a business sort of grew up around what we were doing and a handful of other podcasters. There was a real community to it at that time, and now it’s like a disaster, but whatever.
FD: I’m really curious where your head’s right now as a Jewish man, considering the last three weeks, the Anti-Defamation League is reporting a nearly 400% increase in anti-Semitic incidents right now. I mean, kids on college campuses are hiding in libraries during supposed pro-Palestinian rallies, people are being physically assaulted..
MM: Well, it’s a tricky thing, and I wrote an essay for Variety — that was written before the shit went down (referring to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack of Hamas on Israel). And it’s very hard to approach this stuff as an American secular Jew in the sense of, as a Jew, you’re expected to show up and have a kind of point of view on Israel. And it’s sort of a loaded question because no matter what you do, you’re going to get flack. Now, my primary concern is that Israel as an available homeland in general for us Jews who were brought up in America was always presented as this place that we would always be welcome… it became the basis of how we define ourselves as Jews, right? Most Jews I know twice a year they go to Temple on the high holidays, but they’re not lighting Sabbath candles, they’re not practicing Jews. But I’ve always had concerns about the government of Israel, and I always will align myself with Jews, and I think what’s happening with the Palestinians is horrible. What Hamas did was unfathomably atrocious and evil and the political dynamics and the condition and treatment of the Palestinians has always been problematic. So my concern now, having empathy on both sides, is that there’s a conflation, I can’t believe I’ve used that word twice, of Israeli policy and Zionism … that has resulted in this new kind of progressive antisemitism because there’s not enough separation going on. In that essay, I made it clear that here in America there are antisemitic acts of violence going on. There are random killings of Jews here and there, and the point is that whether you’re a Zionist or not, or whether you’re religious or not, Jews are Jews, and it’s about all of us. I believe that to be true, and the escalation in anti-Semitism is terrifying to me. But also the sort of new kind of explosion of anti-Semitism coming from the left because they’re lumping us all together. It’s terrifying because if there’s not a liberalism that really just believes in the moral imperative of peace and that you should always align yourself with the struggle and the sort of reality of the death of people in general, if that isn’t at the core of liberal thinking across the board, then it’s troubling. You know what I’m saying?
FD: You said something that reminded me of the conversation I had with my father years ago who was a Reagan Republican/Kennedy Democrat — I’m a Berniecrat — and he and I got into an argument once when he referred to himself as a Jewish American, and I said, well, really Pop, we’re American Jews. And he said, “Why are you flipping the noun and the adjective there?” And I said, well, if history’s taught us anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter how we consider ourselves, but the modifier is where we live, and we are seen as Jews first no matter how committed we are to our country or our place of residence, that we are othered and have always been othered.
MM: And that’s a reality for American Jews. To begin sort of blindly commenting on the situation in the Middle East at any given point in time is a rough go, given the history, but also struggling with what we were all taught as conservative middle class Jews in this country in relation to Israel… in relation to Nazis in relation to “Never again,” in relation to the Holocaust, what I come away with is that Jews are Jews, and I stand among Jews. But I do know that whenever anything happens and Jews are involved, the larger portion of people in reaction will generally come down on Jews. And look, I would hope, and we have always hoped, that there can be a peaceful solution, and I am obviously very sensitive to the plight of Palestinians and also to the sort of reality of Israelis, and there’s no way to really see that slaughter of Israelis as anything but pure evil and atrocious, and anybody who makes the jump from that to, well, this is because Israelis did whatever, is really missing a profound step in their moral sort of understanding. And if they’re progressives and liberals, they are a little, I would say morally compromised.
FD: Yeah, the moral relativism there is on full display. Absolutely.
MM: It’s just so tricky to talk about because there’s nothing anybody can say — it is just that in all honesty, the whole thing is horrible on both sides for different reasons, and it’s heartbreaking, but I don’t necessarily think I have a lot of power in this situation, but what I do have some input on is my own experience as an American Jew and what we’re up against in this country, which is not nothing.
Marc Maron performs at Comedy Works South in Greenwood Village Nov. 17-18, two shows each night. Tickets are $40, visit ComedyWorks.com for more information